Timestream Post: A note from 07.19.2011

19 07 2013

Greetings from the past!

In this case, the date is July 19, 2011, and I’ve just returned from the first of a two-day assessment of a radiological laboratory outside of Charleston, South Carolina.  While I’m supposed to be knee-deep in schoolwork, I’ve found a little extra time to continue this a-chronistic endeavor.

When shall I send this?  When, oh when indeed?  I’ve written enough of these trans-temporal notes that picking an appropriate delivery time is starting to seem a little… difficult.  (-Is is chronistically gouche to deliver messages from two separate points in time to the same or similar destination dates?  Is that the time-equivalent of double-booking an evening date?  Hmm…)

I think I’ll send this a cool two years forward.  There are a number of things in play that I believe should be resolved – or at the very least resolved – by that point.  With a limping truck, a start-up company in play and my (somewhat obscured) face in Newsweek, a kid in the works, a potential brewing TV show, and a looming foreclosure of my ill-timed and financially ruinous townhouse…  I truly have no idea what the future holds.

So, future, how about it?

On this business trip, I'm cheating on my truck with this dashing machine...

Let’s go down the list.

Do I have a new vehicle in the future, or have I continued to resurrect my trusty 2000 Ford Ranger, “Wolfsburg?”  I must admit that I am quite taken with my rental car this trip, a fortuitously neglected Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sport, which I received instead of a compact car from the rental agency.  It handles as well as a sturdy truck, has decent visibility, and one can even remove the top!

I’m smitten.  Does the burgeoning romance lead anywhere?

(After all, there’s not much room for a car seat in the truck…)

Spaceflight Fitness!

Second, what’s happening or has happened with Astrowright?  (Will that link even still work?)

Right now, I’m desperately trying to find time to iron out remaining services and organizational literature, promotional material, and I’m working to scrape up initial clients.  Truthfully, I’m having a hard time before having a child in my midst…

Is it folly to think I can do it all – work, school, side business, be a father – and be successful while maintaining my sanity?

What does 2013 have to say?

Though, I should also admit that the current spaceflight developments aren’t all stressful.  I was pleasantly surprised on my way out to South Carolina a couple of days ago to find myself in Newsweek Magazine article entitled “The Next Space Race!”

Yep. That's me on the left! (Credit: Newsweek)

As it would turn out, the Newsweek writer embedded with us while in scientist-astronaut training at the NASTAR Center had his story picked up to coincide with the final Space Shuttle launch – and so there it was, on page 59 of the July 18th issue, staring at me as I wandered through the airport!

So, yes, my face is covered by a respirator mask, but there I am, flightsuit sleeves rolled up and ready to go.

Also, by this time in the year 2013, we should be approaching the second birthday of my first kid!  I’m banking on it being Grayson James McGee that we’ll be meeting here in a bit, and he’ll likely be clipping through the milestones on his way to the “terrible twos.” =)

Will he want to be an astronaut like his dad?  (If so, will that freak his dad out?)

Also, while not spaceflight per se, I’ve got a meeting tomorrow afternoon with representatives from Ping Pong Productions – a television production house that filmed a demo for a UFO-crash-site archaeology TV show they’re interested in doing with me, if a network picks it up.  Apparently, they have news.

Honestly, I’m a little terrified.  I’m not a TV personality, and getting involved with a popular “UFO-hunter”-styled show will likely stretch my scientific credibility.  -But, it will likely be an adventure, to be sure.  It borders on too bizarre to feel real, but in just a day I’m going to be on the phone to find out…

What they heck are they going to tell me?  TV show?  If so, do I take the gig?  If so, was it a good idea?

8408 Majestic View Ave. Still in my tenuous possession in 2013?

Rounding out the things on my mind is, unsurprisingly, my townhouse.  As it stands, my cousin and her boyfriend are renting it from me, though prices have dropped so dramatically that I’m taking an incredible loss every month.

What am I doing?  It’s sufficiently destroyed my savings, and I feel like the last one to not ditch the now incomprehensibly underwater investment.

I ask again – what am I doing?  I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford it at all after having another mouth to feed in a few months.

Does 2013 show that I’ve hit the lottery and was able to hang onto the thing?

Like the Man says – there are no problems, only solution.  All times are good ones if we but know what to do with them, right?

Here’s to pretending I know what to do with this one.  =)

Cheers,

Ben

July 19, 2011.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011. 2:30pm.

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Wonders of Flight and Patterns in Time

17 07 2013

Flight

Space Really Isn’t that Far Away

A quick note today on two thoughts resulting from the same image (above).

Taken with my phone while pressed against the starboard-side window during a recent cross-country flight, (I’ve been doing a lot of flying lately), the first thing you’ll probably notice about this picture is that I’ve inverted it.

Why?  Simply, it was for those who may not be quite as impassioned about space exploration as I am.

I did it to illustrate what I felt, as an aspiring astronaut, every time I look up and away from the plane at altitude.  Look at how close space feels here!  It’s almost as though you could touch it, or hanging from the Earth by your hands, stick your toes in it.

(At the time and altitude this picture was taken, the plane was nearly 10% of the way there!)

Now, under ordinary circumstances, the trick is that I don’t think people notice the sky darkening above them as they rise out of the lowest parts of our planet’s atmosphere.  Flip the image over to turn conventional experience on its head, however, and now it’s easier to see that the reality of space is much more in-your-face.

Instead of a simple window view from an airplane, the picture now shows (at least to me):

The Earth’s cumulus clouds, floating in a thin, cobalt band of blue atmosphere, puff outward over the infinite black abyss of outer space, shackled to the Earth only by the iron grip of our planet’s gravity.

Look again!  Note how suddenly, in the precise same image from a different perspective, space seems wildly close and our atmosphere amazingly thin!

Feel free to tell me if you think turning this image on its head provides the dizzying sort of effect I was going for – illustrating that space really isn’t so far away.  And next time you fly, maybe when no one is looking, try turning your head upside-down for a moment and peek outside.  You might be surprised at how it feels.

(As an aside, in the same way inverting the view from an airplane window can bring space closer to home, perhaps just by upsetting the way we look at other ordinarily-abstract, obscure, or esoteric pursuits, they might also be made to feel more real?  Two cents.)

Patterns in the Past

Secondly, immediately after taking the above photo, I was compelled to consider just how much of the conventional, hum-drum experience of modern life is anything but conventional when viewed through the lens of human existence.  The view was amazing!  But is there any way to quantify just how amazing or extraordinary many of our day-to-day activities truly are?

As it turns out, with a simple geometric expansion of time moving backwards, and after making some very, very generalized assumptions about human perception, it’s pretty easy to pick out a rough pattern in just how unconventional the experience of our modern world really is.

Allow me to show you what I mean.

Looking at the above image once again, (even right-side-up), I would argue that actually achieving that view with human eyes would have been considered:

  • Completely commonplace last year;
  • Just as commonplace ten years ago;
  • Truly wondrous a century ago;
  • Utterly fantastic (as in the stuff of fantasy) one millennia or so ago;
  • Completely unimaginable by our ancestors ten millennia or so ago.

That’s an easy order of magnitude with each step, (i.e., 1, 10, 100, 1,000, and 10,000 years, respectively).

Think on it – What we grumble at having to suffer through (TSA screening, layovers, jet-lag) would have been the very realization of the fanciful dreams of, say, the ancient Greek inventors, philosophers and mathematicians – to master the elements and achieve the power of flight!

(Contrast that with the reality that when flying today, many of us slide a shade down because the view above the clouds is too bright, and we read a book or nap instead!)

Patterns in the Future

However, in addition to attempting to highlight some of the wonder that may slip under our collective radars in the commotion of our modern lives, I also quickly realized that the above exercise has another, more functional and perhaps more surprising and seductive utility.

In a way, by walking through and establishing the (if only rough) time-perception pattern above, we actually can claim to have created a tool we can use not only in looking at ourselves and at the past, but also in looking forward.  It becomes a tool that gives us an intriguing and strangely mathematical window into what our future might look like.

So, if the logarithmic pattern I mentioned above can be said to generally hold true, then it certainly has something to say about our future.

It begins sensibly, but then it quickly carries us into (in my opinion) extremely interesting territory.  So, based on our ancestors’ perceptions and using flight as a guide, playing the aforementioned temporal pattern model forward from now gives us the following:

  • That which will be commonplace one year from now will have also been considered commonplace today.
  • That which will be commonplace ten years from now will have generally been considered commonplace today.
  • In a hundred years, that which inspires wonder in us today will have become commonplace.  (Spaceflight?)
  • In a thousand years, our most fantastic modern technological imaginings can and likely will have been made real.  (Interplanetary travel?  Colonies?  Medical immortality?  Mind-transferability to machines?  Teleporters?  Time Machines?)
  • In ten-thousand years, we will have accomplished feats that are unimaginable to us today.  (????)

What fun it is to try and imagine what the achievements of that last point might be!

Perhaps in recognizing a pattern, we can have a leg up on the game.  (How about it?  Could we use the McGee Scale to truly relate the passage of time to the rate of technological advancements within a civilization?  Does this work at all scales?)

The take-home here is that, with history as a guide, maybe nothing really is impossible to a self-aware and curious species given enough time, persistence, and trial-and-error…

I think I’ll play around with this and see if it holds up with technological advances other than flight… Thoughts welcome!





Pushing Asteroid Mining on the Wow! Signal Podcast

26 06 2013

Just a quick note today on a fun, recent interview I gave with Paul Carr on the Wow! Signal Podcast, where I had the opportunity to discuss the very conceptual genesis of my personal scientific journey as a geologist and space scientist: the lure, importance, and incredible promise of asteroid mining and capitalizing on extraterrestrial resources!

photo

My original 2004 NASA KC135 proposal for an asteroid mineral separation “mining” system. …Still looking for an opportunity to fly this thing…

(Paul is a space systems engineer, skeptical investigator, and a prolific writer who keeps not only the aforementioned podcast but also his own blog and several websites, most of which communicate a fascination with space and life in the cosmos…  Thanks for reaching out, Paul!)

So, for any readers interested in hearing me attempt to talk extemporaneously while simultaneously trying to keep a lid on my enthusiasm for the potential in space resources, now’s your chance. =)

Additionally, I should note that I had the good fortune to share the podcast airspace with engaging planetary system scientist (and dabbler in numerical astrobiology) Dr. Duncan Forgan, as well as Isaac Stott of Stott Space Inc., future asteroid miner and ardent proponent of space resources development.

The only thing that could have made the podcast more of a kick was if the interviews had been temporally-simultaneous and supplied with science-fueling spirits of some kind…  All in good time, I suppose…





Talking Space Radiation Dosimetry at NSRC 2013

24 06 2013
Having an unashamedly good time stealing a few moments between talks inside the XCor Lynx spacecraft mockup parked behind NSRC 2013.

Having an unashamedly good time stealing a few moments between talks inside the XCor Lynx spacecraft mockup parked behind NSRC 2013.

I recently had the great pleasure to give a talk (and serve as co-author for a second) at the fourth annual Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC), held this year in Boulder, Colorado.

As a one-of-a-kind collection of researchers, entrepreneurs, spacecraft providers, students, and government representatives, NSRC’s intent is to foster collaboration of a sort that will enable the research world to fully utilize what amount to a fleet of new spacecraft looking to come online within the next 24 months.  In all, exciting to be amongst like-minded folks, great to see familiar faces again, and a thrill to forge new alliances.

Two Radiation Take-Homes for the Suborbital Space Community

IMG_4535So, what was I doing there?  In brief, on behalf of my spaceflight consulting firm, Astrowright, I made a daring and ill-advised attempt to shove a 40-slide presentation into 10 minutes, with (based on positive feedback) it seems at least a small amount of success.  (I wouldn’t have even made such a blitzkrieg attempt unless it was absolutely necessary in the context of my talk.)

The intent?  To give a broad enough overview of radiation detector theory so that I had a prayer of communicating to this very select audience two imminent realities of space radiation dosimetry:

  1. The private/commercial spaceflight world, particularly in the suborbital context, is primed to (mis)use off-the-shelf radiation dosimeters designed for the commercial nuclear world; these instruments will not deliver complete or ultimately meaningful numbers without applying specific scaling algorithms to the results, in essence calibrating them for the space environment.  User beware!
  2. The greatest benefit of bothering to outfit suborbital astronauts with radiation dosimeters might not be to the spaceflight participants themselves, (who would receive in all but the most extraordinary circumstances a practically immeasurable radiation dose).  Instead, the greatest effect may be to improve Earth-based low-dose modeling and safety standards, the researchers engaged in which would benefit immeasurably from having a completely new population group to study who are intentionally exposing themselves to low-dose, high-intensity radiation.  This is also, *hint hint*, a completely untapped research funding angle (contact me if interested in collaborating – seriously!).

So, there you have it.  If not taking advantage of my own firm’s radiation dosimetry services, my message to the suborbital spaceflight world was to at least engage in planning one’s own flight experience armed to understand that accurate dosimetry in the space environment is not something one can just pull off a shelf and slap on the outside of a pressure suit!

Space Training Roadmap

The second talk, which was expertly given by co-conspirator Dr. Mindy Howard of Inner Space Training, involved a task-based assessment of potential spaceflight tasks for suborbital spaceflight participant.  The objective there?  The development of a spaceflight training “roadmap” to help participants decide which training amongst the many types offered by providers is relevant and necessary for their personal flight goals.

The power to decide which training is or is not relevant to an individual should not, in my opinion, be left up to the spacecraft providers (who may and likely will not have your specific goals in mind)!  That’s where our roadmap research comes in.

Please feel free to contact me or Dr. Howard for any additional details along those lines.

Lingering Thoughts

Well, the pulse at the conference was that the next twelve months appear to be crucial.  With business plans starting to kick in and metal finally being flight tested, I feel as though there are two distinct options for NSRC 2014: It will either be aflood with the excitement borne of the dawn of commercial suborbital spaceflight, or attendance will plummet as cynicism and a fear of perpetual development cycles sets in.

For now, the future looks bright, and that’s good news!

Until next time, NSRC.  Cheers!

IMG_4534

Having an equally unashamedly-good time having the opportunity to give a NSRC presentation about a topic that’s actually in my field of expertise! (I’ve been fielding for other sides of the house the past couple of years…)





The Antimatter Plot Thickens…

30 04 2013

I realize it’s been egregiously silent here at the Astrowright blog for some time.  Apparently, I am not immune to the same disappointing (as a reader) dry spells experienced in/by so many other blogs I’ve followed during the years. 

(With grad school, teaching at CSN, my day-job working for DOE, a side-business or two in flux, moonlighting the occasional and surreal TV project, and with a 1&1/2-year-old at home – let’s just say I’ve come to terms with the reality that I’m not a juggling Jedi yet.)

Excuses aside, however, I wanted to take a moment to relay a devastatingly exciting potential discovery, which itself was prompted by a pleasant surprise…

CERN's ALPHA experiment.  (Credit: CERN)

CERN’s ALPHA experiment – our Anti-Virgil into Dante’s Antimatter Inferno? (Credit: CERN)

Antimatter in Focus

AntimatterSymbolOnlyAs reported on SpaceRef.com and NASAWatch.com, which prominently featured the antimatter symbol I created a couple of years back (i.e., the pleasant surprise – thanks, Keith!), we may be one giant leap closer to figuring out antimatter – and with it, peer a little farther into the mysterious underpinnings of the Fundamental Forces of Nature.

In an article titled, “Does Antimatter Fall Up or Down?” Keith Cowing reports that researchers at CERN’s Alpha Experiment recently published in Nature Communications their tantalizing antimatter research progress.  

Specifically, these CERN specialists have identified a process for finally determining whether or not gravity acts upon antimatter the same way it does upon “ordinary” matter, even if they haven’t answered the question quite yet.  (See Keith’s article for more details on their experiment, what it means, and where it’s going.)

Down the Anti-Rabbit Hole

So, why do we or should we care about figuring out what antimatter really is and how the universe treats it?  Well, quite simply, it has the possibility of providing new solutions to many current problems in physics. 

Dark EnergyDark Matter, and questions about early Cosmic Inflation all essentially deal with versions of the same issue: There are apparent problems with the amount of force we see in the universe versus how much we should expect. 

Perhaps a shift in our understanding of fundamental forces, like gravity, will shed new light.

This is to say nothing of the mystery concerning why the universe appears to be all matter and generally no antimatter.  According to physics as we understand it, there’s no reason for the bias.  (Why not areas of high concentrations of antimatter and others of normal matter?)

Why did matter win?

And to make matters yet more interesting, the late, great Dr. Richard Feynman (and others) have described antimatter as being inditinguishable from (or perhaps actually being!) ordinary matter moving backwards through time.  While few physicists believe this is actually the case, it certainly bends neurons considering that it remains a physical possibility*.

(*I should note that this idea of antiparticles moving “backwards” in time, in order to be true, requires a reconstruction of what we mean by “time.”  This is because antiparticles don’t blip out of existence as they move to the “past” with respect to us as we, presumably, continue to move into the “future.”  Instead, we remain with the antiparticles in the same measurable “now” in the universe…)

Antimatter – A Guiding Star

Keep an eye on this one, folks.  It could very well be that the study of antimatter provides us the wedge we need to evolve beyond peering through the keyhole at the universe and instead throw open the door.

Optimistic?  Admittedly. 

However, we’re due for our big 21st Century paradigm shift in the sciences.  What with the recent 100 Year Starship Symposium hinting at what the future has to offer us (along with humanity’s expanding view of our galactic neighborhood and our desire to get out there and engage it), it’s high time we get on inventing that superluminal propulsion system to Alpha Centauri, already.

I’m not getting any younger.





Why Support Human Spaceflight?

7 01 2013

NASA plans to test the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle in low-Earth orbit in 2014. (Image credit: NASA)

It seems that an eternal question plagues conversations about the future of commercial or governmental spaceflight: “To man (a spacecraft), or not to man?”

-This query is one I am often posed when I reveal my own spaceflight ambitions.  Many wonder why we bother with the incredible expense of sending humans off-world when critics argue that 1) the same or better work could be performed with robotic spacecraft; 2) laboratory experiments in space add little value to what we can achieve here on Earth; or 3) that in the context of state-supported spaceflight these activities divert crucial funds from other social needs.

Well, as it would turn out, former NASA Director of Life Sciences Dr. Joan Vernikos has answers.

Defending Human Spaceflight

Astronaut Edward H. White II, pilot on the Gemini-Titan 4 spaceflight, is shown during his egress from the spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA)

Astronaut Edward H. White II, pilot on the Gemini-Titan 4 spaceflight, is shown during his egress from the spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA)

In a sweeping article she authored back in 2008 for the medical journal Hippokratia entitled, “Human Exploration of Space: why, where, what for?”, Vernikos exposes the many failings of these criticisms while highlighting a spectrum of commercial and societal applications for human space research.

  • For starters, she points out that the repair and upgrades of the Hubble Space Telescope – universally hailed as not only the most important telescope in history but also as one of humanity’s most successful scientific endeavors – was only possible via the use of skilled and trained astronauts.
  • Expressing a fair amount of foresight, Vernikos then goes on to point out that commercial space travel providers (see: SpaceX) will rely on the knowledge gained from human spaceflight to support a safe and secure experience both for researchers and adventurers.
  • There’s the classic and no-less-relevant argument that human explorers have capabilities for innovation, troubleshooting, creative problem-solving, and adaptation simple unavailable to robotic counterparts.  This is particularly useful when utilizing very sensitive instrumentation and performing research with many unknowns or variables.

But these points, suitable defenses on their own, pale in comparison to Vernikos’s description of the commercial enterprise that grew out of the Shuttle-era…

Exploring the Space Applications Market

The reality of trickle-down consumer technology and products that were originally developed for human spaceflight applications is breathtaking.  It truly seems that anyone who downplays the commercial and social trickle-down benefits of tackling the challenges of human spaceflight simply hasn’t done their homework.  For example, Vernikos (here emphasizing her medical background) describes in detail that space exploration is directly responsible for:

  • The ubiquitous reflective, anti-UV, anti-glare coating on eyeglasses
  • Small-scale blood-testing (requiring drops instead of vials)
  • The entire field of telemedicine
  • In-utero fetal monitoring
  • Genetic pathogen-detection sensors
  • Telemetry computing for the civil and environmental industries
  • Enhanced breast cancer diagnostics using the Hubble Telescope digital imaging system
  • Tissue engineering
  • Enhanced antibiotics generation
  • Bed-rest countermeasures

-And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  In this way, Vernikos promotes redirecting attention to the idea of the “Space Applications Market,” which is the name she gives to the commercial arena where these NASA-driven technological and knowledge advances are incorporated into commercial and societal applications.

Instead of the microgravity-tended orbital commercial manufacturing or power-generation facilities that many assumed would be the means by which commercial enterprise would capitalize on human space exploration, it’s been the smaller-scale technological innovations and applications that make a (if not somewhat obscured) powerful impact both on the economy as well as on our daily lives.  Just look at the above list of advances in health technology and medical know-how.

-And new research suggesting a possible link between exposure to ionizing radiation in space and neurodegeneration – an accelerated onset of Alzheimer’s Disease – means that the greatest medical advances as a result of human spaceflight may yet be ahead of us.

All it will take is support for human spaceflight.





Remembering September 12, 1962

12 09 2012

JFK at Rice University, Sept 12, 1962.

Exactly a half-century ago today, President John F. Kennedy declared in a landmark speech America’s rationale for achieving the impossible: Going to the Moon. 

And it is in this speech, which we commemmorate on the day after another anniversary marked by such tragedy, in a social climate today burdened with so much loss, strife, and economic depression, that we can draw inspiration and hope for the future. 

Unlike our opponents at the time, Kennedy’s message was a message of freedom and peace in space.  And to ensure it, he had to sell it to the American people. 

Remarkably, with as relevant as his words continue to be, he could very well have been speaking to the America of today:

“… [T]his country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them.  This country was conquered by those who moved forward…”

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.  For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own.  … [S]pace can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.  There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet.  Its hazards are hostile to us all.  Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.”

“We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.”

“The growth of science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.”

“…[T]he space effort itself … has already created a great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs.  Space and related industries are generating new demands in investment and skilled personnel … and this region will share greatly in its growth.”

“William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”

“Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.”

We might look upon the International Space Station today as the realization of Kennedy’s vow for peaceful, knowledge-centered pursuits in space.  -And private companies like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, XCOR Aerospace, and Planetary Resources are today challenging the hardships of space in the pursuit of space’s rewards.

As we look to heal – economically, socially, spiritually – we might look to space as the ideal environment that Kennedy championed, which holds true today: A frontier yet-unblemished by conflicts over belief, religion, combative nationalism, or economic strife; A place from which all explorers emerge with a renewed sense of kinship with our lonely world and the inhabitants of its many diverse and unique cultures; A place where we go to forge technological solutions and harvest knowledge from the very farthest extent of our reach so that all might benefit from it; A place where we have constantly demonstrated the best qualities of humankind.

Today, fifty years after Kennedy set us on a path that many would argue changed the course of history, whether considering the issue of jobs, rights, prejudice, education, or wars, I believe we need space much more than it needs us.

And Kennedy helped light the way.  

09/12/62 – Semper Exploro








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